“The doors are closing!” and other desperate lizard cries

Posted on October 21, 2010

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Take Jennie*. She’s an attractive woman in her late 30’s who has worked hard to make a successful niche for herself in her career.

Armed with a fantastic sense of humor and a plethora of interesting life experiences, she is also kind, thoughtful and generous.  She spends a lot of her free time with members of her family and friends, and these people cherish her company. Because Jennie is a quality person, she has naturally surrounded herself with other quality people.

But Jennie’s got a big birthday coming up and things have started to take a turn for the worse. With the advent of her forties, this normally very rational woman has allowed an unfortunate thing to happen. She has allowed a big lizard lie to take over her life and she’s making some horrible romantic relationship choices because of it.

Perhaps I should call this particular lizard lie the desperate lizard cry, as it is analogous to the frantic cry of Chicken Little. Instead of running around yelling that the sky is falling, this particular lizard’s exclamation goes something like this:

There aren’t that many good options left! The doors that were once  open to me are closing! Ohmygawd, ohmygawd!! I better pick something NOW or else there will be nothing left for me!

This lizard cry is what’s happening inside the heads of people who trample each other to get that “special” item from a store. It’s what happens when brides-to-be start ripping apart wedding dresses at Filene’s and it’s what’s going on when parents fist-fight over Tickle-Me-Elmo’s on Christmas Eve.

Fear of losing options comes from the very unsophisticated place of our brain know as the reptilian brain (or what I like to call our “lizards”).  When one believes the cries of desperation from the lizard, the results aren’t that great. Actually, they’re terrible.

In the world of relationships, this lizard cry results in people staying in crappy relationships, because they are afraid they couldn’t possibly find a good one or because they’ve already invested a lot of time in the bad relationship. It also results in people becoming desperate daters and trying to create relationships with people who aren’t ideal for them.

In these situations, the lizard convinces people that someone, ANYONE, is better than being alone, and settling for whomever one may stumble upon then becomes the unfortunate new standard.

What I’ve found in my practice is that some of the brightest people continually voice this lizard lie and it seems that my clients aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this fear.

In a fascinating study conducted by Dan Ariely, and cited in his book Predictably Irrational, students from MIT were asked to demonstrate simple decision-making skills in a video game where they were charged a certain amount to keep doors open.

Each door had a different cost associated with it to keep it open. The participants’ goal was to make as much money as possible while playing this game. Even though  keeping the doors open resulted in a much larger loss of money, the students couldn’t stand letting doors close.  As Ariely states:

Certainly, we thought, the participants would see the wisdom of not pursuing the closing doors. But we were wrong. Once they saw their options shrinking, our MIT students-supposedly among the best and brightest of young people-could not stay focused…They just couldn’t tolerate the idea of the loss and so they did whatever was necessary to prevent their doors from closing.

This study, although really interesting, didn’t particularly surprise me. I see many of my clients using a similar rationale in their relationship decisions. Their lizards pick a life event (like a birthday) and then use this to convince them they should hurry up and settle because, yep, you guessed it: The doors are closing!

But the doors aren’t closing and if you look around, you’ll realize that you do, in fact, have many options. Especially when it comes to your romantic life.

At the conclusion of his study, Ariely argues that it’s actually our large number of options-and our fear that we may be losing out on some of them-that overwhelms us and results in our loss of focus and hence, poor decision-making. If we focus at the goal at hand, instead of what we may be missing out on, we’re more apt to be successful.

So what should one do when one’s lizard starts its desperate lizard cry about doors closing and losing options? Challenge the story it’s telling you. Look for the evidence that there are, in fact, a lot of people in the world whom you could date and with whom you could have a great relationship. These people may be volunteering in your community, they may be taking classes, they may be members of singles’ clubs or they may be attending a local Meet-Up group.

The point is: They are out there.

Stop listening to your lizard. Stop focusing on the doors you think you have to keep open because you’re afraid there won’t be anything left for you if you close them. Then go out and find someone who is right for you, instead of settling for someone who is not.

Afraid you might be settling? Read here to see if you are.

*Although I use the story of a woman to illustrate this lizard fear, Jennie actually represents a very large number of my clients, both male and female.

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Posted in: The Lizard